Campus / News / March 6, 2008

Workshop, talk bend gender and break binaries

The Human Rights Center was so full of noise that the approximately 20 students sitting on sofas, chairs, and cushions strewn about the wood floor, could scarcely hear each other as they exchanged stories on Friday afternoon.

Robyn Ochs, a nationally known GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans-sexual) activist, speaker, writer, and educator was brought to Knox by Common Ground to give a workshop entitled “Loosening the Gender Girdle.” There was certainly no hesitation when she asked participants to tell about a time, or times, when they learned a lesson about acting according to gender roles.

Junior Madeleine Ettlin said it quickly became apparent to her that by being the only girl in her class to wear pants on the first day of kindergarten she had done something wildly unpopular.

From what junior Rachael Goodman-Williams has observed in working with young children, girls are still expected to act and dress a particular way and are rewarded for doing so. Compliments directed towards young girls tend to focus on clothing and appearance, Goodman-Williams explained, whereas compliments directed towards young boys tend to acknowledge academic achievement.

“Judith Butler has written that from birth, we’re taught [gender] and how to perform it,” said Ochs. “The system of reinforcements, rewards, and punishments is so constant that we have no way of knowing what’s really us, and what’s imposed.”

To demonstrate her point, Ochs asked, “Am I comfortable being semi-feminine because it’s intrinsic, [or because it’s a social expectation]?”

The other workshop activities also made it clear that gender roles are so ingrained in us that they generate automatic responses.

Ochs instructed the participants to close their eyes and sit like a woman. There were only seconds between the time when she told them to open their eyes, and the time when everyone focused on the one person whose legs were not folded, and whose hands were not placed neatly on their knees or in their lap.

“This was a conscious decision,” said sophomore Ariel Krietzman, who sat cross-legged in an armchair. “I’m a woman, and this is how I sit.”

After sitting like women and men, the students were asked to walk like women and men. They noted that both when walking and when sitting men tend to take up more space than women.

At the beginning of the workshop, participants were split into two groups, which it was arbitrarily decided would be the mango group and the pineapple group.

In a word-association activity the mangos and pineapples stood in two circles, facing each other, and alternated between speaking and listening to the person across from them.

Ochs told participants to say whatever came to mind when they heard, one at a time, the words, gay man, lesbian, straight man, straight woman, bi man, bi woman, and trans man, trans woman.

Several students noted a tendency to associate negative words with “straight man.” Intimidating, scary, and self-centered, were among the ones that came up. Ochs said it was interesting to her that straight men, the ones who generally think they are the only people who do not have stereotypes associated with them, are in fact judged in similar ways as other groups.

Although society has perpetuated stereotypes and gender roles for many years, Ochs emphasized it is not necessary to conform to them.

Quoting one of her favorite slogans, Ochs said, “Bend your gender, it won’t break.”

“Something that really pisses me off,” Ochs said, “is when newspapers use the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably.”

Ochs believes the failure of publications to use the word “sex” in its proper context is partially the result of erotophobia.

To explain the difference between the two, Ochs recited another quote: “Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender’s what’s between your ears.”

In other words, “Sex refers to the biological attributes that are outside one’s choice or control. It’s the ‘package’ you’re born with, to use a double-entendre,” she said.

Ochs expressed frustration at society’s tendency to make matters of gender black and white.

She said it bothers her that many people attempt to recreate binaries, by trying to identify the “man” and the “woman” within same-sex partnerships.

Later that evening Ochs gave a related, though different, talk entitled “Identity and the Sexuality Spectrum,” also dealing with stereotypes and breaking down binaries.

She began the discussion by asking participants to introduce themselves and give their opinion on the effectiveness of labels.

Responses ranged from, “I think labels are useful when they’re not based on stereotypes” to “I think labels are useful in grocery stores.”

Ochs said her personal view is that labels are useful in preventing certain groups from becoming invisible and helping people find each other. But, they should not be used as a tool for judgment, but rather as an invitation to teach and learn. Ochs’ presentation was just that. In order to learn about other people, participants “became” other people.

Ochs passed out a survey asking everyone to rate their sexual orientation, sexual attractions, sexual experiences, sexual fantasies, and romantic/emotional attractions on a 0-6 scale, with 0 being completely other-sex attracted, and 6 being completely same-sex attracted. In addition to an overall rating, the survey asked for ratings before age 16, and in the past month.

After the surveys were collected, they were redistributed so everyone got someone else’s. Each person was then asked to assume the identity of whoever’s survey they received.

On the floor in the front of the room were taped cards with the numbers 0-6. As Ochs read out each category, participants were asked to move to the number corresponding to the rank on the survey they were now holding. Redistributing the surveys allowed for anonymity in this activity.

“How often do we get to see that many identities over a period of time?” asked sophomore Ellie Poley, a member of Common Ground and one of the organizers of the event.

In addition to classifying identity on a numerical scale, the survey asked what words people attach to their identities. People who ranked themselves anywhere between 0 and 2 on overall sexual orientation identified as “straight” and people who ranked themselves anywhere between 4 and 6 identified as “gay”, “lesbian”, or “queer”. This was surprising to some participants.

“When someone says they’re straight we tend to think 0, and when someone says they’re gay we tend to think 6, but that isn’t always the case,” said Ochs.

The scale used in the survey was originally developed by Alfred Kinsey and first published in his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1953). Kinsey commented on his findings by writing, “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects” (Kinsey 639).

Fritz Klein expanded on the Kinsey Scale by developing a sexual orientation grid that additionally measure sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, hetero/homosexual lifestyle, and self-identification. The Klein grid includes columns for past, present, and ideal identifications.

After that Michael Storms developed a scale that took it one step further, and measured degrees of sexuality. Therefore, people could be classified as being homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual, and as having low to high levels of either homoeroticism or hetero-eroticism.

Holding up a horizontally folded piece of paper, Ochs explained, “Basically, when we use a model like the Kinsey Scale to conceptualize sexual orientation, it is easy for us to misunderstand what Kinsey was representing and to conceptualize sexual orientation as one flat line.”

Then unfolding the paper, accordion-style, she said, Klein exposed the complexities under the straight line.

And finally forming the paper into a cylinder, she helped the audience conceptualize Storms’ theory.

Drawing from her own life experiences, Ochs said she has heard people say bisexuality cannot exist, basing this belief on the argument that if a person were to feel attraction towards both men and women, their vial of sexual orientation would essentially over-flow.

“I explain [Storms’ theory] by using the image of a vial full of one person’s sexual orientation, and explain that we are not all equally sexual, and that our ‘vial’ can expand or contract at different points in our lives,” said Ochs. “I appreciate the Storms Scale, as it clearly decouples attraction to men from attraction to women by placing them on separate, independent axes.”

Poley said when Ochs told her the workshop and talk were going to be geared towards people who had not had much exposure to the issues in the past, she was not sure how much she would get out of it.

“I was worried I might be bored, but my mind was blown,” she said.

“It was the most successful thing [Common Ground] has done this year,” said senior Brittany Alsot, a member of the club.

“The program evolves every time I do it,” said Ochs. “Sometimes it seems obvious that people want to go in a certain direction. People tonight seemed comfortable with the concept of fluidity and complexity. It’s obvious that Knox has a culture of openness.”

Erin Coleman

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1 Comment

Dec 05, 2013

Ochs said her personal view is that labels are useful in preventing
certain groups from becoming invisible and helping people find each

Oooh. I like that concept. I have a somewhat confused approach to labels, and that’s a useful way of looking at them. Must remember it.


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